Building a Culture of Collaboration: Why Group Norms and Shared Values are Essential

Building a Culture of Collaboration: Why Group Norms and Shared Values are Essential

By on Dec 5, 2016 in Behavior, Blog, Collaboration, Connect, Consensus | 0 comments

By Monica Moser
Have you ever had the experience of feeling lucky to be in the right place at the right time? That is exactly how I feel about working at the Jackson Community Foundation at a time in the history of Jackson, Michigan when there are so many dedicated, thoughtful and exuberant leaders in the right
monica-moser-blog-graphicseats on the leadership bus. As we began working together, we could feel that something was missing or just plain wrong with the status quo. It is exactly what the folks at PureReinvention mean when they talk about Disrupt. We knew in our collective gut that there had to be a different way to consciously change the way we were working together to have a bigger impact. We pushed our boundaries to begin a journey together to build and continuously nurture a culture of collaboration. It began almost six years ago, when we first learned about a theory of change called Collective Impact.


John Kania and Mark Kramer first coined the term in 2011 in their article called Collective Impact published in Stanford Social Innovation Review. This framework allows us to change the very systems that hold us back from transforming our community. Right away this framework made sense to us as we had already begun efforts trying to effect change in the systems of health and education. In the article, Kania and Kramer shared their research about what made some communities more successful than others at creating lasting change. As it turns out, the communities who experienced the most significant changes are those that had the following five key components in their plans:


  1. Common Agenda: Communities that brought a diverse, cross-sector group of decision-makers together as a network to define the problem and state it publically were found to be more able to keep the group in alignment and focused over time. This public agreement marked the start of their journey and established the boundaries of the work to be done.
  2. Shared Measurements: Once they knew what their vision for the future was, they decided on how to measure their success. Shared measurements helped all the partners stay focused on the data and whether or not their collective efforts were moving the needle in the right direction. If the needle didn’t move, they knew that they had to adjust their strategies.
  3. Mutually Reinforcing Activities: Once each organization, whether a grass-roots organization, a unit of government, a school district, a nonprofit or an individual saw the big picture of what problem they hoped to solve, they began to understand how they could align what they each do best to meet the network’s goals and objectives. It’s like doubling down on a strategy and making sure that all the community’s assets in this area were being utilized to their fullest potential.
  4. Continuous Communication: To do this kind of work together, it took a different level of communication that kept all partners in the loop about what was going on and when to pivot when needed. This sounds easy, but as the stories of communities utilizing this model have found, it is one of the most difficult parts of Collective Impact to keep in motion.
  5. Backbone Support: Lastly, they found that most community collaboratives failed because they were comprised of good intentioned volunteers trying desperately to do something different to help their community, but the collaborative work was in addition to an already full plate. The biggest key to the success of Kania and Kramer’s cohort was that they actually invested in hiring people to be responsible for the elements above. They developed an organized way to make sure that everyone was invited to the meetings, that there were minutes, that when things changed, everyone was alerted, that when data was available, it was shared, and when things didn’t go as planned, the group was convened to look at why it was or wasn’t working. This allowed them to adapt and pivot quickly when necessary.


These five elements need continuous review and refinement as the system changes and adapts to the system-level interventions tried. Additionally, we have developed some leadership muscles along the way. In a way to Own the disruption of the system, we have built our capacity to step onto the “balcony”. If you haven’t read any of Ronald Heifetz you should check out his book, The Practice of Adaptive Leadership: Tools and Tactics for Changing Your Organization and the World. They use the metaphor of “getting on the balcony” above the “dance floor” to depict what it means to gain the distanced perspective necessary to see what is really happening. This practice is used to continually make assessments and take corrective action. When leaders perfect this skill, they are able to simultaneously keep one eye on the events happening immediately around them and the other eye on the larger patterns and dynamics. This is immensely helpful in the Collective Impact work we are doing and I would venture to say, imperative to our long-term success.


Another leadership muscle we intentionally developed was to establish group norms of behavior. When working as a collaborative network of people, establishing group norms helps ensure that everyone understands how we will interact at every meeting to enable deep understanding and decision-making. This reminds me of the PureReinvention concept to Simplify. As crazy as it sounds, group norms give us a safe place as leaders to be real with one another. We learned about group norms and how to utilize them from The Adaptive School: A Sourcebook for Developing Collaborative Groups (Garmston and Wellman, 2009, pp. 27-43). These norms and resulting behaviors are expected as the price for admission and participation. The following norms were developed by the collaborative council and reinforced through meaningful facilitation:


  1. Pausing before responding or asking a question. This allows time for thinking and enhances dialogue, discussion, and decision-making.
  2. Paraphrasing someone’s thoughts and ideas. You know what this sounds like – “So, I think I heard you say…” and following with an efficient paraphrase. This assists members of the group in hearing and understanding one another as they converse and make decisions.
  3. Posing questions has two intentions. The first is to explore an idea and the second is to specify thinking. Questions may be posed to explore perceptions, assumptions, and interpretations, and to invite others to inquire into their thinking. For example, “What might be some assumptions you are making?” Use focusing questions such as, “Which students, specifically?” or “What might be an example of that?” to increase the clarity and precision of group members’ thinking. This process is important to honor diverse perspectives and explore others’ ideas before advocating for your own ideas.
  4. Putting ideas on the table is the heart of meaningful dialogue and discussion. Label the intention of your comments. For example: “Here is one idea…” or “One thought I have is…” or “Here is a possible approach…” or “Another consideration might be…”. This allows for others to give input and opens dialogue. It also opens the door to allow others to improve your idea and keep the discussion going rather than shutting it down.
  5. Providing data, both qualitative and quantitative, in a variety of forms supports group members in constructing shared understanding from their work. Data have no meaning beyond that which we make of them; shared meaning develops from collaboratively exploring, analyzing, and interpreting data. Shared meaning leads to shared vision moving forward.
  6. Paying attention to self and others. Meaningful dialogue and discussion are facilitated when each group member is conscious of self and of others, and is aware of what he or she is saying and how it is said, as well as how others are responding. This includes paying attention to learning styles when planning, facilitating, and participating in group meetings and conversations. It basically boils down to watching for the signs that it is going well or not and to check in to be sure and intervening when necessary.
  7. Presuming positive intention of others’ promotes and facilitates meaningful dialogue and discussion, and prevents unintentional put-downs. When making an effort to consciously presume that what others are saying are positive or at least said for the benefit of the group, not the detriment of the group, it changes the entire tone of the discussion. This group norm has changed the way I think about every conversation. It has helped me move beyond assuming negative intent and going into further inquiry using the previous group norms. Clarifying the intent of others saves an incredible amount of time.


Once our group norms were adopted, it became the place-maker to remind everyone that we have agreed to behave this way and when things start to go beyond any of these norms, we have a platform to refer back to and reframe the moment, thus holding each of us accountable. Working in this way is sometimes messy and unpredictable. The next leadership muscle that sets us apart from other kinds of collaborative work is that we have developed and are trying to embed a set of values that guide our work.


  • Relationships, relationships, relationships – All of you know that relationships are important. We have taken the time and continue to spend time to build relationships especially among people who don’t usually work together. This reminds me of the PureReinvention fundamental to Connect. We spend time each meeting to get to know each other a little more deeply. One thing we have found is that when leaders in key organizations change, it is imperative to orient them to the way we are working together and to manage the expectations of this kind of work. Although this effort takes time, it is so valuable because it helps build trust.
  • Trust and Transparency – Working together for the long haul means that we must trust each other, especially to say the hard things when they need to be said. It also means that each must adhere to the norms of presuming positive intent, especially when our individual or organizational needs are different than the community’s needs. We have found that it is imperative that we understand, identify and are transparent about this potential tension. We have learned that conflict is expected and even necessary sometimes, and if we have taken time to build trust and transparency, we can actually use the conflict to help us move forward.
  • Low Hierarchy – Decision-making happens throughout the network where people who know best can make changes or adjustments when things aren’t going as planned. In this kind of work, we might need to pivot quickly when the environment changes – the political environment, a policy change, a partner’s loss of funding – those unexpected things that require us to shift quickly and adapt.
  • Adaptiveness and Failing Forward – There is an understanding upfront that what we are doing will change, that changes will happen slowly and sometimes quickly and that sometimes we will fail. We will need to learn from past mistakes, get over the guilt, blame and shame and try again quickly. In the PureReinvention language, Move is exemplified here. To help us, we adopted some design thinking and have begun to implement PDSA cycles in our work (Plan, Do, Study, Act). The idea is to plan something together, try it, be vigilant, act on what worked and what didn’t work, and plan again. If we acknowledge up front that we expect that some things won’t work, we can get over that hurdle and get back to work.
  • Data and Results – EVERYTHING must come back to the data and the results. Who said, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results”? If our strategies aren’t working, we need to do something different. There is some tension here too. How soon is too soon to change strategies? When do we expect to see the data move? I do know that there are plenty of examples of communities sticking to a program or initiative even when nothing has changed for years or even decades. We don’t have the luxury to continue to do this. We need to put everything on the table along with the funding and find alternatives that will make a difference.
  • Humility and Humor – Even in the tensest moments, we are all just people trying to work together differently because we love the community we live, work and play in and we want to see it grow and thrive. Coming to the table with humility and humor helps, not only to keep building our relationships, but also to realize that this work can be rewarding and fun too.


As you can tell, behaving this way as a community of leaders takes conscious thought and consideration at every move. It takes patience. We have built an understanding that sometimes it will get messy. We will take some steps backwards and push on to move our community forward. We are in this together and we have a long way to go. Any time you are trying to build a culture of anything, there is a tipping point, a point in time when a group rapidly and dramatically changes its behavior by widely adopting a previously rare practice. We have reached our tipping point. When a new leader joins the community, they can feel that our community is different. They can feel that there are different expectations, and that we are serious about working together in a way that builds our community. We have attained the rare. We have built a culture of collaboration.

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